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Engineer vs Musician

  1. Sep 13, 2012 #1
    Hello everyone, I just want to write a small story that hopefully some of you guys can help me out with:

    Ever since I was young, I always looked up to my uncle who was a Civil Engineer. He was the main reason that I ever decided to study engineering in the first place because of all the cool stuff he would show me. We built things and learned new things together. I told my parents "I want to go to MIT and be an engineer" when I was around 6 or 7. Now let's fast forward a bit to second grade when choir auditions came around and I thought, "hey, why not?". So lo and behold, music became a major part of my life. So much that all the tinkering and building that used to go on, slowly disappeared. Before even joining chorus, my parents bought me a sound recorder that all I would do with, is sing songs of any kind.

    Now I'm in college, studying to be a Mechanical Engineer. I would love to be an Imagineer for Walt Disney World. The only thing is that I see I don't have the general trend of growing up like many of my other classmates do. They all tinkered and we're fascinated with how things worked. I was always more into the music. To this day, during lectures and labs, I'm constantly making beats on my desk, or humming a tune. I always listen to my iPod and the sound I hear brings joy to my heart. I'll come home and close my door just to blast music and sing and dance.

    So here's my main question, I don't feel like I'm quite cut out to be an engineer, do you guys think I should consider majoring in music? Possibly Music Engineering?

  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 13, 2012 #2
    I love good music and I also like science, but I never considered trying to make a living in music. The fact that I'm not particularly talented may be one reason. But there are many instances of mediocre talents becoming wildly successful, like Taylor Swift. I don't know your gender, but unless you're extremely talented or very good looking and can write a lot of mushy love songs, stick with engineering.

    EDIT: Since this post was moved to career guidance, I'll try to give a somewhat more serious perspective. I don't know much about music engineering, but if you are particularly talented at this, I could see real possibilities. You might be able to reduce the number of takes "Ten Take Taylor" needs in the recording studio. Beyond that, if you could figure out a way to keep her on key in live performances through some kind of instant processing of her voice, I think you could become very rich, but not as rich as she is.
    Last edited: Sep 13, 2012
  4. Sep 13, 2012 #3
    This is a solved problem.


    I'm an engineer and also a semi-pro musician. Have you had any contact with the music industry? I'll quote Star Wars to give you my opinion: You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.

    That said, it is cheap and easy to do songwriting, music production, and even performing as a hobby. Why make a career of it? The music biz is full of self-serving jerks and will make you lose faith in humanity. And, you probably won't keep engineering as a hobby. Also, the music business is changing fast and it's becoming harder and harder to make a living at it. Where it's going to be in 10-20 years no one knows.

    I find that engineering is a very creative activity, and I get to express myself both in my work and in my music. It's a nice life.
  5. Sep 13, 2012 #4
    Really? Then how does TS manage to go off key in live performances?

    http://www.imnotobsessed.com/2010/09/03/rocker-chris-robinson-says-taylor-swift-is-horrible/ [Broken]
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  6. Sep 13, 2012 #5
    She probably doesn't use it always. There is a popular backlash against it (AutoTune) going on. Also, if you're TOO off-key the correction is quite noticeable which can be worse than being off key in the first place.
  7. Sep 13, 2012 #6
    Also, let me state that success in the music business is only weakly correlated at best to talent or training. It is far more important to know the right people, be in the right place at the right time, or be blindly lucky. I don't know about you but I would be really scared to embark on a career where my success is in large part out of my own hands.
  8. Sep 13, 2012 #7
    Yes, but it also helps if you're a very pretty blue eyed blond (sometimes) that's nearly six feet tall and who managed to acquire that cute southern accent when she moved to the "big ol' city" (Nashville) from Pennsylvania.

    But to stay on topic, are you essentially saying music engineering doesn't offer much as a career?
    Last edited: Sep 13, 2012
  9. Sep 13, 2012 #8
    It's very niche. If the OP studies Electrical or Software engineering then there are career opportunities in the music software / electronics industry, which I think of as highly distinct from the "Music Business". Firms like Avid, Alesis, and Native Instruments and the like hire a fair number of engineers. However, I think it is a stretch to call it "music engineering"... I would call it signal processing with applications to music. It's a small distinction but I think it makes a difference.

    When I was an undergraduate I thoroughly investigated working for one of these companies, but in grad school my interests changed.

    PS I like the TS sarcasm... I can tell you're a true fan.
  10. Sep 13, 2012 #9
    It really depends what do you want to do.

    It's true that music industry is hard but it's not true that you can't make a living out of it.

    Most musicians that I know make a living by:

    1. DJ
    2. Making music and sounds for video games
    3. Events - they are hired for specific events such as weddings

    They aren't world-fameous and it's not typical music industry but they are doing fine.

    Come to think of it - in my country wedding is huge job giver - wedding planners, photographers, musicians, well I even know circus troupe which make a living by doing performence during wedding parties.

    So there is a way out.
  11. Sep 13, 2012 #10


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    Delete Avid from that list. They are circling the drain financially. Their corporate survival plan is mostly about selling off whole divisions like M-Audio to anybody who might want them, closing down international offices, firing theor own software development teams, and outsourcing the work to places like the Ukraine.

    http://www.sonicscoop.com/2011/10/27/avid-announces-restructuring-lays-off-10-of-workforce/ (the back story from 2011)
    http://www.sonicscoop.com/2012/07/0...dio-and-video-lines-reduces-staff-another-20/ (and the 2012 update)

    I don't think they are in a minority of one in the industry, either. The corporate sheep who used to pay $000s for "professional" software are beginning to wake up to the fact that there are free open source products with more functionality and better (and free!) technical support. They have got used to their top of the range computers running Linux, not HP-UX, Sun Solaris, IBM AIX, or whatever. Time to take the next open source step...
  12. Sep 13, 2012 #11
    Well there's making a living, then there's making a living. I know some musicians (and two clowns (!)) who make a living like this. But to be honest they are scraping by. They don't have health insurance, they don't have retirement accounts, and they aren't saving money to raise a family. They are quite busy chasing after work and worrying about their rent coming due.

    Generally, statistics show that most creative people make very little money. Engineers usually do much better. I know (and played shows with) some semi-well known national musicians (with recording contracts, national tours and everything). You would be amazed how little money they really made. One group was a single van-breakdown away from destruction. It was sad, because these people were more successful than 99% of musicians.

    The music industry really is a winner-take-all game. A few people are hugely successful, a lot of people scrape by working odd jobs when needed, and very few people make a nice, comfortable middle-class living. (I said few, there of course are people who make a living in the middle. The majority of people who try don't make it that far). And, the roles for people in the middle are diminishing as the Internet remakes the music industry.

    So, Rika, you're right and I agree with you. However, I think the OP had a career roughly equivalent to an engineering career in mind.
  13. Sep 13, 2012 #12
    I've always been interested at the amount of musicians there are studying to be engineers or who have an engineering related day job. I too am studying CE/EE and have a musician/producer background in the music business. The music industry of yesteryear is dead. While it may still look like the promised land for people who dream of living off of their talent to sing, play or perform, it is a VERY insecure time for "professionals" in that industry.

    If you love music, feed that love by all means. However, if you wish to feed yourself stick with engineering.

    Having said that, don't be afraid of looking at different aspect of music creation. I second carlgrace's suggestions.
  14. Sep 13, 2012 #13
    That's a great quotable line!
  15. Sep 13, 2012 #14


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    I did lots of engineering-type work for the pulp and paper industry and played music. I worked my way through college in no small part to playing frat parties and private parties. When I found myself working brutal hours in construction, then transitioning to shift-work in pulp and paper, then travelling to mills all over the Eastern US consulting for them, public performances took a back seat.

    Later, I returned to my home base and started performing again. I could make $125-135 a day performing on weekend afternoons. I left the grueling evening performances to the youngsters. Engineering and music are not mutually exclusive.

    BTW, technical skills come in really handy if you find yourself buying, restoring/repairing guitars and amplifiers. There is a lot of money in that - not as steady, but at least as lucrative sometimes as the weekend gigs.
  16. Sep 13, 2012 #15


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    Hey ralfsk8.

    If you are creating your own music, you should put it on a website and find somewhere where you can host it where people can purchase it as well (the biggest service that comes to mind is iTunes, but they definitely not the only game in town).

    If you get people that like your music, take interest in them and if you get enough people, then you might think about going to the next stage by booking a small venue and if that happens you'll want to think about taking some time out to prepare for live shows (which will involve a lot of stuff not simply practicing songs but going through the whole production cycle of a live show).

    We have the internet now so if you are producing music of any kind, you can potentially let millions (maybe even billions) of people get access to it if they are looking for that particular something.

    Also, one thing I would recommend is to get feedback from people that aren't your direct friends or family: friends and family tend to say nice things because they are your friends and family but sometimes the best advice is to actually hear "I didn't like it" because if you are a public performer, you are going to have to deal with a hell of a lot of this kind of thing.

    Even if you are doing sampling and mixing, the idea of getting your stuff and yourself out there is a really critical thing.
  17. Sep 19, 2012 #16
    Is Taylor Swift really that bad? I mean come on, she seems fine to me.
  18. Sep 19, 2012 #17
    No she's not that bad. She's solidly mediocre on processed studio recordings, but who isn't after the computers have done their work? Her music is bland, her lyrics trite with too many words for the notes. I expect more from someone who has won 6 Grammy awards by age 22. Did you know groups like Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd have never won a single Grammy? I will give her credit for her latest (Sept 8th, 2012) release, a charity single called Ronan dedicated to a 4 year old boy who died of cancer in May, 2011. The lyrics are touching, but she still can't sing and there are still too many words for the notes in several places. Go listen on You Tube or MP3.

    Last edited: Sep 19, 2012
  19. Sep 23, 2012 #18
    I was into music all through high school, college, and a few years past college. I did the formal music education in high school and played in bands the rest of the time. I am currently working as a Mechanical Engineer.

    Really it's a personal choice what you want to do with your life, but I can share my experience and the impressions that I gained through them with you.

    There's a big difference between loving music and making a career out of it. You have to be prepared to either write music for ads, play crappy cover songs for weddings, or at best play the same songs every night until you can never hear them the same way again. To be successful playing original music, you have to either become, or compete with, lip-syncing strippers, and success is more about image than about talent. You can only make it your career by adapting your art in one way or the other.

    Engineering, on the other hand, is all about putting stuff together. If it can't be put together the way you want it, than adapting your design to make it work is part job. The difference is that a good Engineer necessarily must adapt to be a good engineer on his/her merits, whereas a good musician only has to adapt to make a profit, and often that adaptation may have a negative effect on his/her merits as a legitimate musician.

    Simply put, adapting to the reality of the job market makes you a better engineer both by merit and marketability, while similar adaptations as a musician are necessary for marketability but can have a negative effect on your merits.

    So, it can become a question of "Do I make my art my job, taking the risk that I might have to destroy that art in the process" vs "Do I make engineering my job, while keeping my art pure as a hobby."

    I chose the later, although I am on a 4 year hiatus from music while I get my Master's degree. You might also consider music education.
  20. Sep 23, 2012 #19
    Do what you're good at not what you love. This is a big mistake many people make.

    Are you as good a musician as you are an engineer? If you are a great engineer and a mediocre musician then keep it as a hobby.

    If they are equal talents choose engineering because it pays more.

    If you are a great musician and an ok engineer, start getting gigs and earning money as a musician.

    Always do what you're good at, not what you love. If you want happiness in your work, *become very good* at what you love.
  21. Sep 23, 2012 #20
    This is a pretty depressing thought. It's certainly one way to look at it, but I am excellent at parking cars, yet I think valet would be a poor career choice for me, even at a high-end hotel where I could make as much money as an engineer.

    You raise the question of "If you want happiness in your work" as if it's an option. You *need* happiness in your work if you want happiness in your life. If you're miserable 40 hours out of the week, you'll be miserable the rest of the week too.

    I agree with you though, that the goal should be to become very good at what you love.
  22. Sep 24, 2012 #21


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    Happiness in your work is an admirable goal, but one also has to be realistic about the prospects as well. Also, obviously you don't want to end up working in a job you absolutely HATE, but if you end up working in an area that you are both competent in and like enough sufficiently as well as providing you with a decent standard of living, this can afford you to pursue your other passions.
  23. Sep 24, 2012 #22
    As a musician who came back to school to get a physics degree, most of being a musician has nothing to do with playing music. Most of your job involves making the few crappy gigs you have played sound like awesome shows. My guitar teacher sends out 50 press kits a month in order to get a handful of gigs and teaches 10 year olds. He's recorded 4 albums and plays to empty halls for $25. Luckily he married a nurse!

    On the other hand, Sting was high school teacher...
    It is naive to think that getting a job "doing what you love" will actually involve doing what you love. I came to the conclusion that work sucks no matte what it is. You should find a job that you can stand that will allow you to do the things you love. My goal is still to write and play great music, I just don't need to worry about convincing some &%!@ to hire me.
  24. Sep 24, 2012 #23
    As a musician who came back to school to get a physics degree, most of being a musician has nothing to do with playing music. Most of your job involves making the few crappy gigs you have played sound like awesome shows. My guitar teacher sends out 50 press kits a month in order to get a handful of gigs and teaches 10 year olds. He's recorded 4 albums and plays to empty halls for $25. Luckily he married a nurse!

    On the other hand, Sting was high school teacher...
    It is naive to think that getting a job "doing what you love" will actually involve doing what you love. I came to the conclusion that work sucks no matte what it is. You should find a job that you can stand that will allow you to do the things you love. My goal is still to write and play great music, I just don't need to worry about convincing some &%!@ to hire me.
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